It was a simple traffic stop.
Not even my traffic stop, actually. A local department had been first to see a car that had been skulking around a local ag place. Supposedly someone had seen someone in that car with a red gas can. The thought was they were stealing gas. The local department, being close, made the traffic stop and waited for me.
I arrived, talked to the driver and passenger, and marveled at how hinked-up they were. Nervous and fidgety, sweaty, lying through what was left of their teeth. I absolutely believed those two were as deep in the bullshit as was possible to be.
But I had dick. I could prove no crime. I talked to them as long as I legally could, went back and forth again and again over their obviously bullshit stories, but had nothing. So eventually I let them go.
Which bugged the shit outta me.
I had a rider that night, a woman who works in our civil department but who wants to get out on the road. So she rides and learns what she can. The stop bugged her, too. We both stood there, watching the car drive away, and I’d bet good money that we both had our heads cocked like a dog seeing something it didn’t understand.
As we’re standing there, it occurred to me that we were on a straight line away from the ag plant.
So I backtracked. Not looking for anything specifically, just seeing what there was to see.
While we were looking around a communications tower location, I said to my rider, “Ninety-nine times out of 100, there’s nothing to see.”
We’d stopped there because of the sheer amount of copper at those installations. They constantly get hit by thieves. I just wanted to make sure. So we checked it and, as I’d predicted, found nothing.
But less than a ten of a mile up the road, we found some items in the ditch.
My gut said, ‘Dude, this is connected. This goes with that car you just let go.’
I gloved both of us up so we could investigate and the first thing we found was a length of bicycle inner-tube, with a piece of PVC pipe on one end. When I picked it up, my rider wrinkled her nose and commented about the smell. I didn’t smell anything because my sinuses absolutely suck.
But even I noticed the damn thing was soaking wet. My sniffer may not work all that well, but my eyes are still pretty good. This tube was dripping wet. So I put it down and turned my attention to the coolers.
I had her stand behind me, telling her it could be dangerous, pointed the top away from me, and began unscrewing. My plan, which I thought a good one [at the time] was to slowly open the container, get the top off, and just get a light whiff to make sure it was anhydrous. Once I’d confirmed it, then I’d get the official machinery moving.
Look, the problem is that the official machinery is fucking expensive and time consuming. It’s a huge use of resources. Fire departments, health departments, cops, ambulances, possibly haz-mat crews. It’s no small undertaking so I wanted to be sure.
(As my rider pointed out, can you imagine if we’d called everyone out first? Everyone’s moving and getting amped up ’cause they’ve got a call and teh cooler turns out to be full of…water? Holy balls, Batman, they’d'a taken the cost of that call-out outta my paycheck until…like…2027!)
I have limited experience with meth labs. I don’t try to be something I’m not, to know more than I know. I try to do things as well as I know how, as well as I’ve been trained. But I also try to draw from experience. And my experience is that those containers only ever contain fumes, or maybe traces of residue.
Never have I had a container that had anhydrous still in it.
And I’ve damn sure never had one that was under pressure.
So I’m turning that lid…slowly…slowly…ever so slowly.
Fucking exploded off and I damn near shit myself.
In all the crazy shit I’ve done and seen as a copper, real fear doesn’t come along that often. Usually training takes over and your time is spent playing that out. Or you’ve seen scary stuff enough that it’s just not scary anymore. You breathe your way through it, compartmentalize, sort it out, etc.
I was scared when I fought the PCP junkie for 14 minutes in an attempt to retrieve my gun.
And I was scared to death when that lid came off that cooler.
In seconds, snot had plugged everything. My eyes were on fire and gushing tears as though someone had hooked up a damned water hose to the back of my head, my sinuses felt like a bomb had gone off deep in my head. The upper part of my throat was burning. I was spitting up a nasty chemical something.
For just a few seconds, I thought I was done for. I thought I’d ingested the chemical, rather than getting doused with fumes. It was that strong. There was no way, I thought, this was simple fumes.
I checked my uniform and bare arms, looking for signs, while my rider asked – I think, some of this is a bit hazy – if I was okay. I told her to call an ambulance and she laughed.
Because that is exactly the kind of joke I would make. See, this was one of those moments when my carefree, fun-loving, constant jokes personality got me in trouble.
But when I looked at her, my face a complete mess, my breath hitching and heavy, her eyes got as big as planets. She ran to the squad and got the ambulance and cops and fire and everyone else moving. In other words, she called out the official machinery that I hadn’t wanted to call until I was sure.
Uh…yeah…standing there thinking I might be dead? That was pretty much all the confirmation I needed.
But my rider had her own moment of hilarity amidst the chaos. She ran to the squad car, yelling at me, “I don’t even know where the fuck we are!”
So I’m trying to tell her exactly where we are even as I’m slowly dying. Tough to form words, much less thoughts, with a head full of anhydrous ammonia.
It wasn’t long before everyone was there, scurrying all over the scene and trying to figure out exactly what had happened. The rest of the night – that I can tell you about right now, maybe more if and when there is a conclusion to what happened after I got out of the hospital – was a blur.
I do remember sitting in the ambulance [I had actually just refused transport to the hospital. Either I thought I was okay enough to drive myself or I really thought I was a Man of Steel] and having my partner from the Academy calmly ask for my weapon.
“Ain’t giving you my gun,” I said.
“Yeah, you are…and you’re keys, too.”
“How the hell am I supposed to drive myself to the hospital if you have my keys?”
“Yeah, about that…sit down and shut up.”
Apparently it was decided, somewhere higher up the food chain than little ol’ me, that me and my rider were going to the hospital and doing it via ambulance.
And then my rider decided to give me grief. “So, dude, what about that 99 times out of 10 thing?”
“Well…I don’t know…call this the one, I guess.”
But it was nice, comforting, to have so many people being anxious both for and about me; medics and cops, firemen, nurses, even reporters. However, all of them took the opportunity to yell at me for opening the thing before grudgingly admitting they were mostly glad I wasn’t dead.
Yeah, you read that right. They yelled at me first, then said the other.
Like an afterthought.